Getting an Education: My American Dream Is Also My Immigration Policy Nightmare

My first day of graduate school was haunted by a tuition bill I could not pay precisely because my immigration status means I'm not eligible for federal aid.

[PHOTO: Woman with curly black hair looks to her right as she stands in front of water and the New York City skyline on a cloudy day.]
Author Estefani Alarcon stands before the New York City skyline. As an immigrant from El Salvador, she began graduate school not knowing whether she could pay for her education—and not knowing whether she'll be deported in September 2019, when Temporary Protective Status will end for Salvadorans. Stephanie Alarcon

In early 2017, soon to graduate from college, I considered what was next for me: Could I go after a master’s degree? As a first-generation college student with roots in El Salvador, I didn’t even know how to apply.

But I knew I was qualified. Good GPA: check. Personal essay: check. Journalism experience: several checks. I had no doubts about my ability to write and make an impact: With more energy than money, I started a community-based newspaper, Dear Southside, to tell stories of my home in South Central Los Angeles. I’ve been published in Teen Vogue and other media, and I’m interning at Bustle to get even more experience during graduate school.

But U.S citizenship: no check.

This one qualifier means that I’m paying $70,000 in tuition for a two-year program—not including room and board in one of the most expensive cities in the country—because I’m not eligible for federal aid.

The first day of graduate school should have been an exciting day. It represents a something you can’t prepare for, a transition from grown-ish to grown. There’s no one making sure you read the syllabus anymore because the first day of class is actually the first day of class.

But my first day at New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication (MCC) felt all too familiar to me. Much like my immigration status, it came with a deadline: a September 18, 2018, deadline to pay my tuition before the September 2019 deadline that will change my legal status in this country. Next year, my Temporary Protected Status (TPS)—a designation for people who fled conflict, environmental disaster, or other extreme conditions in their country of origin—will end.

Under TPS, I could legally live and work in the United States. Since TPS was revoked for Salvadorans in January—and it’s unlikely to be reinstated—I will be at risk for deportation.

I’m not alone. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Liberia, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal, and Sudan have also faced the termination of TPS, even when conditions in those countries haven’t significantly changed. That’s left families scrambling and many young people like me trying to figure out if we can complete our educations or should start something new before we could be ejected from the United States.

So my first day in grad school began with the very real possibility of not being able to return to the classroom I was just entering. Still, it’s exciting to enter spaces not meant for you, like you are decolonizing institutions by simply being present and taking space as a person of color. Here I was, fresh from Los Angeles. But I couldn’t fully enjoy New York, with my employment card weighing on my back and whispering in my ear, “Enjoy the moment, but it won’t last.”

I didn’t foresee this in 2017, when I was making decisions about graduate education. I had gotten some scholarships for academic merit. TPS wasn’t yet threatened, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program had been created for young undocumented people brought to the United States by their families, but I didn’t think I needed it.

I took my status for granted as my parents worked with terrible immigration lawyers who promised residency and citizenship. Blinded by our own excitement to cross over the “American” fence and gain permanent residency, we trusted them. Plans to visit El Salvador in months turned to years. We forgot about our reunification with our country.

Then Donald Trump was elected, and the war on immigrants hit home. When Haiti’s TPS was terminated, I thought, “El Salvador is next.” And I was right.

The termination of TPS for Salvadorans was the push I needed to continue my education. I was already in the process of applying, learning about graduate school as I went and navigating the unknown. I wanted to stay in California, a state where I could at least get an education without citizenship; in Georgia, for example, young undocumented people are barred from attending the state’s top colleges, must pay out-of-state tuition, and can’t access state resources for their education. Yet NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication program pulled me to the East Coast.

Now I am racing against the clock for permanent legal status to allow me to finish what I started, both the plans for legal residency and school. NYU’s lawyers have looked at my immigration case, and it’s a very unique one. They don’t even understand why, after 18 years, I am still not a legal resident. But I know it’s about money. The more you have, the easier it is to pay for a good attorney to fight at your side for residency or citizenship.

Money is the one thing I don’t have. After receiving my NYU acceptance letter, I set out to look for funding for my education. How would I pay for it?

My parents supported my every decision. They planned to help me with as much as they could: food, books, my transition. But then my dad got into an accident that left him in intensive care with a broken neck, arm, fractured spinal disk, and paralyzed. I no longer considered moving to New York. How would I leave my family when they needed me the most?

My mom and older brother immediately told me I couldn’t pause my life or dreams. Continuing my education was not up for discussion. “Esta es mi vida ahora, tu tienes que seguir la tuya” (“This is my life now, you need to continue yours”), my mom told me the night we waited in the cold, quiet waiting room during my dad’s surgery.

NYU granted me two scholarships, but they didn’t cover all my school costs, much less living expenses. And unlike many schools on the West Coast, NYU is not a sanctuary campus. It does not have set guidelines and steps to assist undocumented or TPS students like me. In the university’s eyes and policies, I am an international student.

My tuition bill read $9,727 for the fall semester with the September 18 deadline. I cried the day I took a look at my balance. I began reaching out to people I knew who had contacts, resources, and a little more knowledge about how to fund students like me.

Everyone said loans, fundraisers, scholarships, grants, and fellowships. I had already researched these options, but I didn’t qualify for many funding sources because, again, I’m not a citizen.

The demand for scholarships and need-based financial aid for students in this situation is way more than the supply, especially for graduate school. People suggested credit cards, so I went to apply for a credit card without looking into NYU’s guidelines for payments. “Credit cards not accepted.”Another door slammed in my face. I sought more help at NYU, but I was directed to resources for international students. I am not an international student.

I am in the unknown space between “noncitizen,” international student, and undocumented. I am on another uncertain journey with an uncertain future. Navigating this particular borderland is one of the most emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting experiences of my life.

I was physically present in my first class but not mentally. My thoughts were in Los Angeles with my dad still in the hospital where I told him goodbye before moving. My thoughts were with my mom at her job, trying to figure out how to support our family. My focus was on the scholarships I needed and the looming tuition bill. I was everywhere but the class I had so eagerly awaited.

I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I didn’t want the seat beneath me to feel like it was where I needed to be because my seat is temporary.

On September 18, I paid for my first semester of graduate school with loans accumulated by my family. I try to remind myself to be patient and to take care of myself. I still don’t know how I am going to pay for next semester. I’m not sure when or how I’m going to finish graduate school.

But, for now, I can focus on school—temporarily.